***The report included in this post should be considered a draft until it has been reviewed by the institution. The post will be updated if edits are made.****
At the end of the semester, here are three ideas that I am going to take away:
To paraphrase Dr. Owens, digital objects are not preserved, they are being preserved. This came from one of the chapters assigned at the beginning of the class, but it has stuck in my mind ever since because it’s such a pithy way to sum up one of the most important ideas in digital preservation. There is no “one and done” method of preserving digital objects, but rather it’s an iterative process in which we need to always stay vigilant. This means following established procedures, updating inventories, checking file fixity, monitoring obsolescence, ensuring that files are backed up, and other related tasks. It also reminds me of an episode of The Keepers podcast that interviewed the Internet Archive’s Jason Scott. The interviewer asked him something like “How do you know that the file formats you are choosing are going still be around and be accessible?” and he said (paraphrasing), “We don’t, and that’s kind of the point.” In other words, an important part of digital preservation will be monitoring evolving technologies and trying to keep up.
My second take-away is that you do not need a computer science degree or advanced technical knowledge to do digital preservation. It seems like most people in the class (including myself) have backgrounds in the humanities and do not consider ourselves to be IT experts, so we approached the class with hesitations because we didn’t really believe that we were qualified to do the complicated, highly specialized work we imagined would be necessary. When I was meeting with the curator of my organization, I remember constantly apologizing for not being an expert, and because of my own insecurities, I named-dropped Dr. Owens repeatedly as a way of saying “at least I’m associated with this other person who knows what they are doing.” But now that we are at the end of the class, I believe that we all overestimated the difficulty level of digital preservation and didn’t give ourselves enough credit. The basic steps of digital preservation are simple and can be learned by almost anyone. There is no reason to shudder in fear just because someone said “checksums” or “file fixity.”
On a related note, I told a friend of mine about this project, and he works for Google and has degrees in computer science and advanced mathematics. When I told him I felt underqualified, he said that when he was hired at Google he didn’t know a lot of the technical skills that were necessary for his job, which really surprised me. It wasn’t that he was hired by mistake or was underqualified–Google saw that based on his previous work he was a person capable of learning the new skills that would be necessary. This was kind of a revelation to me, because I think that humanities majors tend to think that people who are IT experts know everything there is to know about computers, but a lot of times they are learning as they go along too. Knowing this gave me more confidence about my own abilities. I am also proud of the final product for this class, and I no longer feel like a digital preservation “imposter.”
A third takeaway from this class is that digital preservation can take multiple forms. I did not expect to start this class with philosophical discussions of what it means to say that something is the “same” as something else, but it is really important to understand what you want to preserve and why before taking any actions. I was intrigued by parallels to the art world, where conservators have to make decisions based on the artist’s intent, and I enjoyed learning about all the possibilities of simulations, like the recreation of old video games or Salman Rushdie’s laptop.
The draft of my final report is available here:
College Park Aviation Museum Digital Preservation Report